Sometimes you just have to go there

In the novel I’m writing, my character lived in Missoula, Montana before and now she’s going back to take care of some things. I personally had never been to Missoula, hadn’t been to Montana at all since 1974. I did what I could on the Internet. I studied all the photos and information I could Google. I downloaded maps and picked out streets where she might live and work. I thought I had a pretty clear idea of what it was like, but I was wrong. When the Fishtrap writing workshop I attended in early July took me close to Oregon’s eastern border, just a jump over Idaho to Montana, I decided to go see Missoula for myself. I’m so glad I did.

Instead of getting a vague picture from what I could find on the Internet, I actually went to the place where she worked, saw the house where she lived, and knelt in the church where she worshipped. I stayed in a motel where she might have stayed, ate at a restaurant where she probably ate. I shopped at the Book Exchange, where she might have bought books. I took pictures and lots of notes, not only in Missoula but on the way there and back.

I could have gotten by with just my online research. I had the general idea. I had the names of things. But I didn’t have the feeling of being there first thing in the morning and the middle of the night or of walking downtown at lunchtime, and there were things I didn’t know. For example, as I entered Missoula, the road was lined with gambling casinos. I didn’t expect that. The hills surrounding Missoula looked huge in the pictures, but they are not the Rocky Mountains; they’re rolling hills like those in my hometown of San Jose. And the drive is so much different from what I thought it would be. In fact I took one way there and a different way back, realizing the first route would be impassible in winter–and she’s going there in December. It would have been more realistic if I went to Missoula in winter, but I had the opportunity now. Besides, my character might be used to driving in snow, but I’m not.

Sometimes I think you just have to go there. The Internet is good, imagination is great, but if you’re using a real place in your fiction, you need to walk the streets and feel what it’s like. I would not have realized Montanans have a little drawl, wear their hair differently, have no sales tax, really get into cowboy art, dress in bright colors instead of Oregon’s grays and blacks, and that the men get confused when a woman opens her own door. To see the cubicle my character might have worked in and the people she might have worked with will make my book so much more real.

My previously published novel, Azorean Dreams, took place mostly in San Jose, California, where I lived and worked for most of my life. I made up the place where my hero lived but planted it in a setting that was so real my readers often go looking for Simao’s house and office, and even I have a hard time believing they’re not really there. After all, you can visit  the cemetery, the church, the bakery, the Portuguese community center, and the bridge where Chelsea met the homeless people. Our settings need to be that real and that detailed.

And here’s a 21st century bonus: When my new novel is published, I can post stories in my blog or on Facebook about my character’s journey, using the pictures and experiences I gathered during my research.

So go there. It’s fun! It’s deductible, too.

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Self-publishing in print, part 2: People do judge a book by its cover

So, you’re ready to self-publish. You have the inside of the book, but how do you get a cover?

The good news and the bad news are the same: You’re in charge of your cover.

Unless you are a professional artist, preferably with some graphic design training, don’t try to do it all by yourself.  Your cover is a critical part of selling your book. Even for e-books, the cover is what customers see when they go shopping. It can either turn them off or draw them in. You want them to love it so much they just have to see what’s inside the book.

If you are an artist or know someone who is, that’s an advantage. However, not all artists know how to do book covers, and you don’t want to ruin your friendship if it doesn’t work out. Still, a wonderful image, such as an original painting or photo, can make your cover sing.

Having control over your own cover is one of the advantages of self-publishing. I have had publishers provide covers that I loved and covers that I hated. If you look closely at my Freelancing for Newspapers cover, the print on the third newspaper down talks about “genital warts.” I was horrified when I saw it, but there was nothing I could do.

Likewise, on the first edition of Stories Grandma Never Told, the publisher used a picture of one of the women I interviewed. I hated it. I wanted a picture of my great-grandmother, but here was this other lady, and I didn’t want her on the cover. Too bad.

When I published Azorean Dreams through iUniverse, I sent them a picture of a harbor from one of the Azores Islands. They sent me a gorgeous cover featuring a couple kissing on a rock, with the harbor behind them. The background was a luscious blue. Just one problem. My hero had a mustache and this guy didn’t. They drew on a mustache. Fine. A couple years later, I discovered the same picture on the back covers of six months worth of Oregon Coast Magazine as part of an advertisement. The same picture. The same couple, minus the mustache.  By then, I was pretty sure that was Italy, not the Azores. They had used clip art, available to anybody willing to pay for it. I was appalled, but that’s still the cover on the book.

When the original publisher let  Stories Grandma Never Told go and I republished it myself, I got the cover of my dreams. The designer, Andrew Cier, from Newport Lazerquick, used photos I had provided to design a gorgeous cover that still makes people stop and comment.

For my latest book, Childless by Marriage, I didn’t know what to do. I was hoping the artist suggested by my printer would catch the essence of the book and come up with something wonderful, but she didn’t. She e-mailed me several completely inappropriate covers and insisted I choose one. Refusing, I wound up with a plain brown cover with a pair of wedding rings on the front because I needed something to get the e-book out by Mother’s Day. Ultimately, I went back to Lazerquick. My “artist” had used “clip art,” nothing I couldn’t have gotten myself . I went online. I found some great images, but then I thought: wait, I think I have something in my photo albums. Sure enough, I found the wedding picture that Jeffery Shirley turned into a cover I truly love. I wasted a bit of money with the earlier unusable versions, but it was worth the expense to get the right cover.

What I’m saying is that if you’re publishing your own book, you have to get the best cover you possibly can.  Don’t try to do it without expert help, but also don’t expect them to be mind-readers. Look in your photos, your art, even at clip art for images that might work. One precaution: You can’t use somebody else’s copyrighted image without obtaining permission. It’s easy to grab something off the Internet or scan a picture you find in a magazine, but it’s illegal to use it for your book without taking the proper steps.

Study other covers to see what you like and don’t like. Remember that the cover has to allow space for the title and your name.  Think about what colors you would like for the background, the spine and the back cover, all of which will include print that you want people to be able to read.

If you Google “clip art,” you will find sites such as “clipart.com” where you can purchase images for a surprisingly reasonable fee.  A search for “book cover design” will bring you lots of companies willing to design your cover or offer you templates. These may work. Check them out carefully before you spend money. Just make sure you get the cover you like, preferably one that won’t turn up someday in a magazine ad.

Coming up: formatting your book and finding a printer


Self-publishing in print, part I: Everybody needs an editor

So you’ve decided to publish your own book. Excellent choice. You will have control over every aspect of the project, from writing to sales, and you will see your book in print within months instead of the year or more it can take with a traditional publisher. Now, roll up your sleeves; you’ve got a lot of work to do.

The most important thing is to write the best book you can. That means writing and rewriting until it’s ready, no matter how long it takes. There’s no point in worrying about cover art or advertising if you don’t have a good book to sell.

Aside from writing the book, the next most important thing is good editing. You may think you can edit your book yourself. You may even be a professional editor. I am, but I still hired an editor to look at Childless by Marriage before I published it. With her input, I wound up doing a major rewrite, but she also gave me the confidence to know this book was worth publishing.

No writer can see her own work the way other people perceive it. We’re too close to it. A good editor can see the book as a whole, noting things that are missing or that don’t fit, marking bad transitions, thoughts that are not complete, places where our egos cloud our writing, etc. She can also find our typos, misspellings and grammar gaffes. You think you can do this yourself, but you can’t. It’s like a doctor trying to cure himself or a lawyer representing himself in court.

I found my editor through a book she had written about writing. When I discovered she did editing, I hired her. It wasn’t cheap—approximately $1,200–but it was worth it. We worked both online and on paper. She sent me my book marked up with corrections and also sent a long detailed letter with her suggestions and corrections, just the way an editor in a publishing house does.

If you Google “book editors,” you’ll find dozens of listings, but anyone can call himself an editor. Check with professional writing and publishing organizations in your area. Look in the acknowledgements of books you admire. Use your social networks, such as Facebook, to get recommendations. Before you commit to working with someone, check their credentials. What is their training? What else have they edited? Most reputable editors will do a sample section so you can both decide whether you want to work together. If they balk at this, move on.

Here’s a great article by C.S. Lakin, “4 Ways to Find the Right Freelance Editor.”  Read it and follow directions.

There are other ways to get editing help that don’t cost money. Many writers I know trust their work to writing groups in which they critique each other’s work. The trick is to find a group with the necessary skills and knowledge of the genre in which you’re writing, but this can work very well. One can find critique groups online as well as in person.

If your work contains specialized jargon or sections in another language, you may want to ask experts to help you make sure you get it right. With my novel Azorean Dreams, for example, I asked several Portuguese speakers, including a professor of the language, to check my Portuguese dialogue. Good thing they did. My rudimentary Portuguese contained a lot of errors.

We all have doubts about  our writing. Even if we have published a dozen other books, we worry about whether the new one is any good. Your editor can help you make sure that it is.

What comes after editing? Find out in next week’s post.


So You Think You Want to Write a Book

It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?

I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.

My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.

The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.

I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.

My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.

It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.